When you think of horror fiction, who comes to mind? A modern day juggernaut like Stephen King? Or maybe you’re drawn to someone a little more classic, like Edgar Allan Poe. Whatever your preference, you may be surprised to learn that many of these male authors at the forefront of the genre were inspired by their female predecessors. Women in horror have existed for centuries, however you may not have heard of many of them. But these pioneers aided in shaping not only the genre itself, but paving the way for female writers and their work to be taken seriously.
Who are these mystery mavens, and how have the contributions of women to the horror genre helped to shape the stories that we know and love today? It’s time for a crash course on women in horror.
The Early Years
Tracing women in horror back to their exact roots can be a little dicey, however it seems as though these female frighteners were paving the way for authors everywhere as early as the 1700s. These writers were publishing some of the first known iterations of horror fiction: the Gothic novel. Dilapidated yet grand manors, damsels in billowy gowns fleeing across foggy moors from shadowy figures they cannot escape.
One such example of this is Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794. Protagonist Emily St. Aubert, recently orphaned, is whisked away to castle Udolpho and held captive in exchange for a ransom demand. Strange occurrences and unexplained shadows about, however Radcliffe was one of several gothic writers not to showcase a legitimate haunting in her story. The true ghosts and ghouls would only show up a little bit later.
Other purveyors of gothic fiction include the likes of Regina Maria Roche, who’s tale Clermont (1794) helped to establish the virtuous heroine who is tormented by a mysterious killer in a crumbling castle. Similarly, Charlotte Dacre (one of many pseudonyms for Charlotte Byrne) wrote several novels considered lewd and unseemly, and was criticized much in the way that much gothic fiction of the time was. Luckily for us, poor reviews – and rude digs from the likes of Jane Austen – didn’t deter these wonderfully weird ladies from pumping out spooky story after spooky story.
Of course, women in horror and really the genre as a whole would not be what it is today without the contributions of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, broke the kind of genre ground that is rarely experienced by one author. Born to a well regarded feminist writer who was lightyears ahead of her generation, Shelley had an excellent role model to aspire to. Her mother passed away only days after her birth, however Mary was able to learn of her mother’s prowess through her writings, as well as her father’s biography about his family and late wife.
After marrying the poet Percy Shelley, Mary famously originated the idea for her groundbreaking piece of literature while staying in a Swiss villa. A horrific nightmare (possibly brought on by the death of her firstborn child in 1851) combined with a contest between friends-Mary, her husband, Lord Byron and his personal physician John Polidori-would give life to a staple of horror literature. Over the course of a number of months following her initial spark of inspiration, and though originally published anonymously, it would become Mary’s legacy, and a contribution that women in horror wouldn’t soon forget.
- Fun fact: on the very same getaway, John Polidori would be inspired to write his story The Vampyre (1819), the first known English vampire novel, published nearly 80 years before Bram Stoker would bring Dracula to life.
Ghosts Who Followed
Once the foundation of the gothic novel was established, it could be explored to its full ghoulish potential. Elizabeth Gaskell published ghostly tales that put her right at the top of the list with the likes of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. In fact, Gaskell had quite a comfortable-if somewhat contentious-working relationship with Dickens, publishing many of her stories in his Household Worlds magazine. Women in horror like Gaskell helped open many doors for female authors to follow.
Other contemporaries would follow, with Amelia Edwards (The Phantom Coach, 1864) and Vernon Lee (alias of Violet Paget) publishing dozens of stories in magazines and other regular publications. The Victorian Era was the height of the Christmas ghost story subgenre, and stories like The Old Nurse’s Tale and The Story of Salome were devoured by readers in droves. If only the public still sought out these types of stories around the holidays, we could have female driven ghost periodicals every year… women in horror, but make it Christmas.
Modern Day Ghoul Gang
Each of these women in horror and many, many more have given way to the more modern-but just as fabulous-macabre female writers of the modern age. Titans of the genre like Shirley Jackson took much of their inspiration from her earlier counterparts. Jason is most famously known for her phenomenal The Haunting of Hill House (1959), but one shouldn’t discount her more underrated works such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), an eerie tale of two sisters living in a dark and cold manor after a horrifying multiple murder, or her short story The Lottery, which may deter you from ever wanting to live in a small town.
Equally as goth? Daphne du Maurier’s iconic Rebecca (1938), the tale of what it really means to marry a widower, and the metaphorical skeletons in people’s closets. Her thriller about an animal uprising (The Birds, 1952) was so well received that Alfred Hitchcock adapted it into an astoundingly popular film released in 1963.
In keeping with the theme of creepy old houses, V.C. Andrews cornered the market on troubling family dynamics with Flowers in the Attic (1979), the tale of the Dollaganger children who are locked in the attic of their stately home by their abusive grandmother. Some very adult themes ensue. Four more stories of the family would follow. In 1987, Toni Morrison published her ghost story Beloved, a fictionalized account of a harrowing escape from slavery for a woman and her children, and the aftermath of that along with the further tragedy that befalls her family.
Other purveyors of this era of paperback horror include Joanne Fischmann, Kathe Koja and Tanith Lee. And one would be remiss not to include Angela Carter, whose collection The Bloody Chamber (1979) reimagines several traditional fairy tales with darker, deadlier twists.
We modern day readers are equally blessed to have the likes of Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles) in our lives. Her work in the vampire subgenre has helped to shape what we know and love about the creatures to this day. It’s so popular in fact that a television adaptation has been given new life over at Hulu. Other modern day women with a taste for the macabre include Susan Hill (The Woman in Black), Helen Oyeyemi (White is for Witching) and Sarah Waters (The Little Stranger). Countless other female authors contribute to the genre every year, and their influence only grows stronger with the passage of time.
Women in Horror: How Have They Impacted Literature?
It’s impossible to precisely measure women’s impact on the horror genre, but it’s safe to say that today’s reads wouldn’t be nearly as hair-raising if it weren’t for their efforts. Women in horror should forever be appreciated and celebrated for their contributions to spooky tales, and to literature as a whole. Thank you ladies-the world wouldn’t be so delightfully spooky if it weren’t for you.
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